The History of Atheism, Feminism, and the Science of Brains
with Jennifer Michael Hecht
Tremendous hope and despair expressed here. Very first thing we can do to forward our goals is to show up.
It’s great to come out of the closet but you should also leave the house.
Had no idea how many atheists I’d discover throughout history. Had PhD in history, written about atheists in modern period. When did research, astounded to find people in every period all over the world, and more, that they offered another way to live.
Many women in history. Had smorgasbord of women to choose from — found women atheists, doubters, secularists, throughout history and all over the world. Even Job’s wife said “curse God and forget him.”
Found transcripts of the inquisition — not just people who believed one crazy thing or another, but many heretics who believed like us that everything was crazy. “Bubonic plague took my whole family — if there’s a creator, he’s not the locus of morality because he’s killed everyone!”
We have to be the ones to cultivate this memory. All of it is on Wikipedia. Don’t have to be a member of secret enclaves to find this info!
Many names — Ernestine Rose, Jewish secularist atheist lecturing around country. George Eliott was author of novels, out and proud. Elizabeth Kate Stanton, amazing figure and leader of feminist movement.
We don’t always remember this stuff exactly, but it changed the world, changed how we think.
Margaret Sanger, “No Gods No Masters”. Helped contraceptives become legal. Problematic with eugenics, but have to pick and choose.
French Translator of Darwin, Clemence Royer. Translation was careful to make evolution atheist and anti-religion — where original said “nature does the selecting”, and people could say “nature” was “God”, couldn’t do that in French. Because Royer added 37 pages of translation to condense and summarize the antitheist aspects of the book.
“Progress of truth gives us as much to forget as to affirm.”
France builds anthropology in a completely atheist and anti-Catholic way. Builds on Darwin, as well as Paul Broca’s work.
Sagan’s “Broca’s Brain” talked about how science changes, and how we don’t really keep scientists’ brains in jars so much any more.
Broca found a lesion in brain of “Tan”, person who could only say “tan”, on speech center of the brain. This was offensive to Catholics — challenged the brain being the seat of the soul. How could the meat think? This was discovered ten years before Origin of Species.
Anthropologists meeting as atheists then figured out that the material world was all there was. Until then, the magisteria were everything physical, and thought, where thought was left to religion. At Society of Anthropology, Clemence was a full member. They further created the “Society for Mutual Autopsy, name calculated to challenge the Catholic Church.
Got access to French archives for Society of Anthropology. (Found box of “Clichees” — which were rubber stamps.) Got access to records of Autopsies. In 1880, Broca’s brain was dissected too — all of them were dissected to look for more lesions like the one in Tan.
They were imbuing their deaths with meaning and forwarding science, especially with saying “leave my body to the scientists” rather than the priests.
Gardner (“Men, Women and Gods”) was American, when she was alive and lecturing, there was a research paper that came out saying that women’s brains were inferior to men. She donated her brain to science.
1893 – first Freethought Convention. Its focus was the rights of women. We’ve forgotten this, but should remember. Royer was celebrated at this.
Royer read much of this stuff about women’s and men’s brains, and thought she’d been born with a man’s brain. Broca had said that women are a little less intelligent, and their brains were smaller, therefore maybe there was a correlation. But then they studied German brains compared to French, and they were larger “and that couldn’t be!” So body mass was factored in, and women’s brains were sized correctly for the correlation.
Why don’t they study tall and short men’s brains? If you’re trying to make scientific assertions for political reasons, why not make all the correlations? The critiques of the bad science are out there… we just have to stay on them. Atheism used to be more respectable in 1800s than it is now. Cold war shut it down because Soviets were atheist; thus “In God We Trust” on money in 1957. Most murderous enemy is no longer atheist country– it’s now places that are more religious than us. Hopefully this means an upswing.
Mention of Hubert Harrison. We see each other, we enjoy the crowd, sometimes we don’t understand how we’re helping each other but we’re helping. Learn your empowering history. Sometimes the knowledge of how the changes happened (e.g. the French anthropologists) are lost, but the changes themselves persist.
Learn feminist theory. Try to both see the oppression and the advantages, recognize as much as you want what some people don’t have, you have to give away a little bit. Both sides need to give and get.
Have to speak the truth. Say what you think is right. If they start arguing with you, tell them to look it up. But don’t let it pass. It takes courage, but don’t let it pass.
For the littlest things, when it seems like it’s about almost nothing, make sure that person isn’t speaking to an empty room. Listen.
Don’t put up with inequality. Sometimes someone comes up with something real clever, some bell curve that puts you down. You can stand up to them, and say “I know that’s not true.” You can go find the books and prove them wrong.
Idea of evolution, one animal changing to another — that’s a religious idea originally. There was one Adam and one Eve, and somehow they had to change to the different races. Evolution for a while was a religious position. The idea that evolution was a watermark of what side of religious divide you were on, comes from William Jennings Bryant. When he picked evolution as the line in the sand. Meanwhile, once upon a time, there was a line in the Bible about Joshua making the sun stand still. That meant the sun was moving, not us. They let that one go.
Q: re religion and evolution, missed it
Darwin gave us a mechanism but it must have happened — quote of “if souls existed without bodies there would be mangos hanging without trees”.
Q: Best evidence about revisionist history that lies or hides atheist history?
Looking at any given historical moment, would find atheists. But looking at surveys, the atheists all fell out. No doubt in my mind there’s been more non-believers through history than believers. Very specific ideas like afterlife and mystery religions are traceable to specific time frames — you know when they were invented, like Superman. Idea that religion is the dominant force all the time — that’s an idea we’re sold from the religious viewpoint. If you look closely, you see differences. How could it be otherwise? We’re anatomically no different from people in the ancient world.
By the time Plato was writing, they were writing about rampant atheism. Middle ages, islamic world, had many doctors who were atheist, who talked about the evidentiary miracle in the Koran, made fun of the metaphors in the Koran to prove it wasn’t god-given.
What can we do to recover? I think we’re doing it. We’re reviving atheism from the stifling effect of the cold war.
Q: Kirk Cameron’s Origin of Species with the creationist foreward recently — was it specifically replacing Royer’s?
Darwin liked the foreword at first but helped finance a new translation later. When church was losing ground on the definition of the soul, they changed that definition. I’m not someone who believes eventually everyone will be an atheist — there’s life cycle issues. People live lots of different ways. There is a progressive movement toward more room for science and reason-based art.
Except for the Simpsons, there’s not much church on TV. We’re winning the fight. We have to be the vocal minority but we may very well have a majority behind us.